Parish: St. Tammany

Police Department: St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office

The ACLU of Louisiana’s Justice Lab, RFK Human Rights, and Linklaters LLP are representing Bruce Washington in a second lawsuit, filed against Officers Chance Cloud, Curtis Finn, Taylor Lewis, and Douglas Searle from the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office (“STPSO”), along with Deputy Chief George Cox; Major of the Professional Standards Division Richard Palmisano; Captain of the STPSO Public Integrity Bureau and Internal Affairs Division Dale Galloway; Internal Affairs Division Investigator of Complaints Frank Francois; Training Division Captain Jeremy Church; and Randy Smith in his official capacity as STPSO Sheriff.  The lawsuits challenge three separate instances of STPSO officers violating Mr. Washington’s constitutional rights. The first lawsuit, which Mr. Washington filed in 2022, overcame summary judgment and the defendants’ appeal to the Fifth Circuit. It is currently awaiting trial. See Washington v. Smith, No. 2:22-cv-00632 (E.D. La. Mar. 10, 2022).

STPSO has a well-documented history of racism that pervades its officers’ interactions with the public. Data reveals that from January through November of 2023, Black individuals in St. Tammany Parish were 3.5 times more likely to be stopped for alleged traffic violations than white individuals. While 15% of the Parish’s residents identify as Black, these individuals account for 36% of the people stopped for alleged traffic violations and 26% of the people cited for those violations. Black individuals are also two times more likely than white individuals to receive a citation solely for violations that are not readily observable to patrol officers, such as driving without a license. This lawsuit challenges STPSO’s pattern and practice of unconstitutional searches of Black individuals and its violations of Mr. Washington’s rights during a pretextual traffic stop.

On the night of January 13, 2023—three days after the world learned of the killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the Memphis Police Department—Mr. Washington, a 53-year-old Black man and resident of Bogalusa, Louisiana, was driving on Highway 121 when he was ordered to pull over by Defendant STPSO Officers Chance Cloud and Taylor Lewis. The officers, who were soon joined by Defendant Officer Curtis Finn, unlawfully extended the stop for an alleged traffic offense—that, from the outset, the officers told Mr. Washington he would not receive a ticket for—by unconstitutionally harassing, intimidating, questioning, and searching Mr. Washington and his vehicle.

The incident happened while Mr. Washington was on his way to visit his girlfriend during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend. When an unmarked vehicle pulled in front of him and slowed down, Mr. Washington safely passed the vehicle in the left lane and returned to the driving lane. Several minutes later, at approximately 7:16 p.m., the unmarked car’s emergency lights were initiated, and Mr. Washington immediately pulled over. Officers Cloud and Lewis got out of the vehicle and approached Mr. Washington, notifying him that he had driven in the center of two lanes “for a second” and that he had failed to use his turn signal.  Officer Cloud asked Mr. Washington questions unrelated to the pretextual purpose of the stop as Officer Lewis shined a flashlight into the car, looking for a reason to order Mr. Washington out.  Although Officer Lewis quickly indicated to Officer Cloud that despite initial suspicions, he had no reason to order Mr. Washington out of the vehicle, Officer Cloud ordered Mr. Washington out anyway.

Fearing for his life, since he was alone and at the mercy of the officers on a dark and lightly trafficked road, Mr. Washington exited his vehicle. Officer Cloud proceeded to conduct a weapons frisk of Mr. Washington without justification and without Mr. Washington’s consent. Empowered by his colleague’s silence and the STPSO’s de facto policy of racial profiling and intimidation, Officer Cloud continued to unlawfully search Mr. Washington, reaching into his pockets and searching through his wallet. Another officer, Curtis Finn, arrived on the scene, and the three officers decided they would not let Mr. Washington go until they searched his vehicle. Without Mr. Washington’s consent or probable cause,  the officers searched Mr. Washington’s entire vehicle. The officers took their time, searching under Mr. Washington’s seat covers, his glove box, his briefcase, backpack, personal medication, and even going as far as to remove batteries from a flashlight they found in the console. They emptied out his trunk and placed his items on the ground as they rifled through his clothing and other personal possessions. Not only did these officers violate Mr. Washington’s constitutional rights, they violated his dignity, and were free to do so because of discriminatory policing practices employed at large in St. Tammany Parish. Mr. Washington asked the Sheriff’s Office to investigate the incident, and the Internal Affairs Division dismissed Mr. Washington’s concerns as unfounded, wholly and explicitly approving the officers’ unconstitutional conduct.

Like many Black residents of this parish, Mr. Washington has been subject to similar incidents on other occasions. In March 2021, Mr. Washington was unconstitutionally searched during a pretextual stop for allegedly failing to use his turn signal, even though the same officers had declined to stop a van with no taillights that passed them just moments prior. Only a few months ago, in October 2023, Mr. Washington was pulled over yet again after STPSO Officer Douglas Searle tailed him for 20 miles along Highway 121, stopping him just before the Parish line. Officer Searle falsely accused Mr. Washington of driving without insurance as a pretext to intimidate and conduct a records check on Mr. Washington—whose only “crime” was driving at night while Black in St. Tammany Parish.

This lawsuit asserts violations of Mr. Washington’s rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, Article 1 of the Louisiana Constitution, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Louisiana state common and statutory laws by the officers’ unlawful and unreasonable seizures and the racial discrimination Mr. Washington suffered.  The suit also asserts claims against STPSO for its explicit approval of the officers’ unconstitutional conduct, and failure to supervise and train its officers in the parameters of constitutional searches.

The defendants in the case are:

  • Randy Smith, Sheriff of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Chance Cloud, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Curtis Finn, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Taylor Lewis, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Douglas Searle, Deputy Police Officer of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • George Cox, Deputy Chief of Professional Standards at the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Richard Palmisano, Major of Professional Standards at the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Dale Galloway, Captain of the Public Integrity Bureau at the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Frank Francois, Jr., Investigator of Complaints, Internal Affairs Division at the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office
  • Jeremy Church, Training Division Captain at the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office

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